Friday, March 12, 2010
Pearls Under Shanghai
The Asian Art Museum recently opened a new exhibit about Shanghai's history over the last 150 years, and the reviews have been unkind, with most of them calling the exhibit an unfocused mess. It was definitely misconceived.
Think of a curator attempting to encompass the last 150 years of history in New York City, for instance, in four small rooms containing a selection of sculptures, paintings, furniture, clothing and signage, and you'll appreciate the absurdity.
The most powerful, and disturbing, aspect of the exhibit consists of maps showing the "foreign settlements" in the heart of the city that were imposed upon the Chinese in the 1840s after the Opium Wars by the British. These autonomous French, American and English enclaves lasted until the the Japanese invasion of World War Two chased them out, and the Communists never allowed for their return.
As Nancy Ewart points out in a post on the exhibit, "By the time Shanghai became a treaty port, it was the brothel capital of the world. One in every 130 women in Shanghai were prostitutes, making Shanghai also the V.D. capital of the world."
"Pearls Over Shanghai," the Thrillpeddlers' outrageously successful revival of the Cockettes musical extravaganza, is closer to reality than I ever imagined.
It is certainly closer to some kind of truth than the sanitized display of party dresses and magazine cover girls at the Asian Art Museum.
"Pearls over Shanghai" has been extended at least three times since I wrote about the show last October, and is currently slated to run through April 24th. Don't miss it or you'll be having to hear about the production secondhand from friends for the rest of your life. After a hiatus to produce another Cockettes revival, the Thrillpeddlers also plan to bring the show back next summer.
If the Asian Art Museum is smart, they would offer free admission to "Pearls Over Shanghai" ticketholders, because the exhibit and the drag musical about Shanghai brothels, opium dens, and white slavery are strangely complementary. There is also some fascinating art in the museum exhibit, though "Pearls Over Shanghai" definitely trumps them in the costume department.